A history of Ireland in 100 objects


Tara Brooch, eighth century

In the late 19th century, copies of the Tara Brooch were a must-have item of Celtic chic. One important nationalist organisation, Inghinidhe na hÉireann, adopted it as its membership badge. The brooch became a symbol of the Irish cultural revival because it presented a stunning answer to Victorian theories of Irish racial backwardness.

In this case, at least, the symbol is not let down by the reality: an object that speaks of a culture functioning at the highest level of sophistication.

It is not, in fact, associated with Tara: it was found in 1850 by a child playing on the seashore at Bettystown, Co Meath, and sold for a few pence by a “poor woman” to a watchmaker in Drogheda.

Now it seems not so much a museum piece as a whole museum in itself, a bravura display of multiple mastery. Though it is less than 9cm in diameter, 76 patterns have been identified on its surface. Both faces, and even the inner and outer edges of the ring, are covered with a teeming profusion of designs, each minutely executed with dazzling skill. Even the cord that was used to secure the brooch in position culminates in an elaborate design that incorporates a serpent and both animal and human heads.

The brooch isn’t the expression of a particular technique; it is a virtuoso performance of virtually every technique known to eighth-century metalworkers. Gossamer-thin spirals of copper are set against gold and silver. The technique of so-called chip carving, borrowed from Germanic jewellery, is applied to create elongated birds. Beaded and twisted gold wires are soldered to a base of sheet gold. Studs of glass, enamel and amber punctuate the patterns. A tiny animal sits in a panel just 2cm wide, its front paw raised and its body winding back on itself.

What does all of this virtuosity mean? That this was made for a member of an elite that saw itself as the equal of any other in post-Roman Europe. The brooch was used to fasten a cloak, which was worn over a tunic, a form of power-dressing that ultimately derives from images of Roman emperors and that was still, at this time, used by high-ranking officials in Byzantium.

In Ireland, brooches were used in this way by high-status women, as well by men, and by clerics and secular rulers alike. In high crosses of this period, even Jesus and the Virgin Mary are wearing Tara-type brooches.

But the brooch also resonates with pre-Christian Irish beliefs. In one tale from around the time the Tara Brooch was made, a Munster king who sleeps with the goddess of sovereignty is told to clothe her in a purple cloak and “the queen’s brooch”.

What we see here, then, is a native Irish elite at the height of its self-confidence, easily integrating Christian and pre-Christian traditions, and its local power, with a sense of being European. It is arguably the last time that such ease would be possible.

Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, 01-6777444; museum.ie